BIG NEWS

Scientists have found planets orbiting a star other than the sun, many light years away from our solar system and have taken pictures of them:

The achievement, the result of years of effort on improved observational techniques and better data analysis, presages more such discoveries, the experts said, and will open the door to new investigations and discoveries of what planets are and how they came to be formed.

“It’s the tip of iceberg. Now that we know they are there, there is going to be an explosion,” said Christian Marois of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, British Columbia. Dr. Marois is the leader of a team that recorded three planets circling a star — known as HR 8799 — 130 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus.

The other team, led by Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley, found a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, only 25 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Piscis Austrinus. In an interview by e-mail, Dr. Kalas said that when he finally confirmed his discovery last May, “I nearly had a heart attack.”

Get a load of this awesome, awesome picture:

13planets-600

That’s a dust ring in red — the planet is nothing more than a tiny white speck in the lower right corner, and the star it’s orbiting is not visible, somewhere in the midst of the black middle.  The solar systems are thought to be much larger than our own; the planets vaguely visible are probably the bigger planets at the furthest and coldest reaches of the system, with smaller and warmer planets orbiting closer into the stars.

The search for these planets, and attempts to capture photos, has been long:

Dr. Marois and his team had spent eight years looking for planets around Sun-like stars with no success. So they decided last year to look around younger and thus more massive and hotter stars, like HR 8799, which is estimated to be only 60 million years old, compared with the Sun, which is 4.5 billion years.

The astronomers caution, though, that it will taken many years before more advanced telescopes will be able to seek out habitable condition and the potential for life.  The search for aliens continues.

(Photo courtesy of NASA, Associated Press — via NYT).

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